The Dismal State of Android as a Music Production Solution

GearDiary The Dismal State of Android as a Music Production Solution

I took the picture above on New Year’s Eve, and I was originally planning to use it as part of a post illustrating how an iPad-centric music system costing under $1000 is capable of producing better music than multi-million dollar studios from just 25-30 years ago. So let’s take a quick look:

My son Christopher is working a DJ mixer which is interfaced to a netbook that is streaming music from MOG; an iPod Touch with some other pre-recorded music; and an iPad.

The iPad is the workhorse of the music system, located just to the left of the iPod Touch and below the netbook. What you will see below the iPad are three USB devices from Korg – a pad controller, mini piano-style keyboard, and slider-based controller. The three controllers chain together through a $20 USB hub also from Korg. All four combined cost less than $200 and are well-built and simple to use. You just plug in and play.

That night Chris was rocking tunes of his own creation using iMS-20, FL Studio, GarageBand, NanoStudio and others. He had only gotten the Korg modules a couple of days earlier, yet they were already integrated into his music studio, making life easier even than using my M-Audio Axiom Pro USB keyboard controller. Everything. Just. Worked.

If you read through my coverage of the Winter NAMM show – which is the premiere forum for new horizons in music technology, you probably noticed a theme. That theme? iPad as the center of an on-the-go music system. For synthesis, recording, DJ work, guitar work, multi-track sound production, effects processing, amp simulations, drum machines, controller interfaces … pretty much everything.

Note that I did NOT say ‘tablets’ … I said iPad. There is a HUGE market for the iPad as a sophisticated music making and recording and control tool. Apple has always had a great focus on music and media at the core of their OS, so the way that the iPad excels at those tasks grows organically out of that focus.

On Android?

A few mediocre little apps, but absolutely NOTHING approaching the level of serious musical production capabilities offered on the iPad.

Why is it that an otherwise robust OS has such an abysmal lack of coverage in this area? Here are a few possible reasons that I think add up to the cause … and the reason we won’t see it solved any time soon:

  • Touch screen lag issues. This is a known issue that most of us who use Android work around, but when it comes to making music suddenly things don’t feel right. This is a fundamental issue, and until it is resolved Android will never be more than ‘amateur hour’ for music.
  • Operating System Latency The ‘why’ has to do more with everything in Android running in a JVM (Java Virtual Machine) and the lazy way that most devices implement the crappy high level audio API from Google than an actual issue with the Linux kernel, so it is fixable. The ‘so what’ is that as a result Android is absolutely useless as a real-time music recording operating system.
  • Hardware fragmentation there is a singular iPad design, meaning that those mixers and guitars from NAMM can easily target the iPad 1 & 2 and even ‘future proof’ to the iPad 3. There are basically no two Android tablets that fit the same physical space. That is a design killer – and given that nearly every Android tablet has been a commercial underachiever and designs change about every six months, I cannot see a small music company making such a risky investment.
  • OS/Device Fragmentation latency is an issue that most people won’t deal with, but basic MIDI and audio timing IS. And as I mentioned before, the JVM abstraction, and non-priority implementation of the Google audio APIs are a huge issue … for most devices. SOME products by SOME makers implement things with a higher priority … but it isn’t consistent. It isn’t a ‘Nexus’ thing or a ‘HTC’ thing or a ‘Droid’ thing … in fact based on what I could find, some devices that had great performance for audio lost it in system updates. That is another killer – why bother working hard when some lazy carrier/handset update will destroy your hard work?
  • Core Hardware Support Joel did a great review on the Blue Yeti Pro USB microphone, which is a pro-level microphone with excellent features for something that plugs into a USB jack. If you have an iPad with a Camera Connection kit, you simply plug it in and immediately record in GarageBand or a load of other programs without Blue ever having done anything. However, plug it into even an Ice Cream Sandwich-based device like the Galaxy Nexus with USB host capability … and guess what? No, it DOES work in terms of being powered … but the phone has no clue what to do with it, so it is just a battery drain. There is simply no system-level support for this stuff. Again, why support an OS that does nothing to support you?

But perhaps the most depressing reason comes down to this: Google simply does not care.

It is worth calling to mind a comment I read recently: Despite being thought of as a tech company, Google is actually an ad agency.

That might sound harsh, but as the expression goes “follow the money”. Google makes 95% of money from advertising. Google + is not about being a social network but about preventing ad revenue from moving to Facebook or Twitter, something they have reinforced multiple times.

Similarly Android isn’t about being a mobile technology company, but about preventing advertisement money from going elsewhere … and maintaining dominance in search. Therefore those things that help them further ad revenues are priorities, and those things that don’t … aren’t.

Before you think I am pounding on Google – I am not. I admire a company with strong focus and identity. Companies that spend too much time and money trying to be things they are not end up getting crushed under their own weight. Look at Apple in the mid-90s, with eWorld and Pippin and licensed clones and Newton and two OS efforts at once and on and on … they were unable to sustain much of anything in a cohesive fashion and it almost killed them. If Google tries to fully engage in all of these industries they will lose their basic focus and fail.

But in the end what it means to people who are serious about making music on a mobile platform have only one serious platform … Android need not apply.


About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!